The September Selected Writer is Christina Marie
Please feel free to email Christina at firstname.lastname@example.org
BEAUTY THE BEAST HUNTER
Izzy stood in the thick of the woods, a white-knuckled grip on her sword. The air in her lungs felt like fire. Blood ran in rivers down the cut on her arm. Hopefully it would scar, but right now it hurt.
The forest was a living mass of shadows, all moving and breathing. The animal corpses lining the clearing reeked worse than the ghoul lurking somewhere in the darkness. Izzy scanned the trees, slowly, hoping to catch a glimpse of greenish-yellow eyes or sickly pale skin.
A flash of movement out of the corner of her eye…Izzy dove into the underbrush. The ground gave her a bruising embrace.
The ghoul changed course halfway through its charge, trying to reach her—SNAP! It shrieked. The hairs on Izzy’s neck and arms stood rigid at the sound, even as she breathed a sigh of relief. She stood, not bothering to brush herself off. When she saw the ghoul in her trap, she grinned.
She’d been worried that covering the bear trap with leaves and dirt wouldn’t be effective enough, but she’d been wrong. The ghoul’s leg was shattered; white bits of bone littering the ground. It howled, trying to pry itself free. With every struggle, its leg became less and less attached to its body.
Izzy grabbed the loaded crossbow she’d hidden behind a tree. Aimed. Fired. And killed.
It took a bit more work than she had planned to pry the body out of the trap. The smell certainly didn’t help. The ghoul’s corpse and the animal corpses that had worked as bait; they all reeked. It was almost enough to make her hate her life as The Hunter.
Izzy was in her village for less than a day, wound tended and the ghoul’s body disposed of half a week ago. She was halfway home from the market when a shadow swooped down on her.
She never should’ve let herself get distracted. But the looks everyone gave her, trying to avoid her face that had been shredded by a werewolf’s claws some years ago, they were just so fun. She couldn’t stop giggling, recognizing a dozen former suitors who suddenly couldn’t find the time for her anymore.
It was a shame the scars didn’t repel all of her suitors.
She didn't have time to get away. She slipped her knife from her sleeve as strong arms wrapped around her. She put the tip of the knife at the base of a thick neck.
“Khalon—” she warned as he tried to embrace her.
“Isabelle, my beauty,” a deep voice greeted. He was so large, and she was so small, that she was completely hidden from any outside observers. Not that there were any observers; it was dusk, and everyone was in their homes. It was just Izzy and Khalon.
She poked his skin with her knife, just enough to hurt but not enough to break skin. “Let me go.”
“Prickly today, aren’t we?”
Izzy pushed the knife. A drop of blood trailed down Khalon’s neck.
Khalon snorted in annoyance and let her go. He rubbed the blood off of his neck. “I heard about the ghoul. A nice little prize for a nice little lady.”
“Don’t be condescending,” Izzy scolded, sheathing her knife. “Ghouls are the hardest creatures to hunt, and you know it.”
“Must be tiring. Chasing after such fast creatures, fighting monsters…you must be aching for the comforts of a warm home. With me.”
Izzy gave him an amused look. “Not in the least.”
“Scars tend to hinder a woman, but you bear yours proudly. That’s good.”
“Of course I bear them proudly. I earned them.” Izzy pushed his hand away. “Now run along. I have work to do.”
She rushed to her house, ignoring Khalon’s calls behind her.
Izzy received a package. Her body thrumming with excitement, she opened the package right there in the post office. In it was a letter.
Coins splashed into her hand, the last half of her payment for the ghoul. She tucked them away and broke the rose seal of the letter, containing her next hunt.
This is your last assignment.
There was more. The letter described The Beast. Its wretched deeds. Last known location. But Isabelle couldn’t get past those first five words.
Last? This was her last?
It was signed as usual. Lord of the Rose. No name. Izzy had searched and searched and had never found his true identity, if it was a he at all. Her best guess was it was a rich merchant of sorts playing at lordship, probably using her to kill the monsters who posed a danger to his own.
She didn’t mind being used. She did mind having her contract terminated on such short notice.
Then she saw the prize money and her eyes bulged.
Half a million gold coins, as well as any other treasures you find.
Isabelle Olivier had never fainted before. Now she came perilously close.
It was enough that she could travel around the known world twice over and stay in every castle and palace she came across. She hurried home and got her sword.
Izzy frowned at the iron wrought gates that barred her path. Beyond them was a handsome palace. Gargoyles were perched on every corner, leaning over their ledges, watching her with lifeless eyes.
The Beast was said to live in an abandoned palace. There was but one village close enough to confirm this information, though The Beast hadn’t been seen in almost a decade. More importantly, there were no confirmed kills or other crimes committed by this “monster.”
The Lord of the Rose was rarely wrong, but this was clearly wrong. The palace was not abandoned.
The flowers and hedges were trimmed, and the garden didn’t have a single weed in sight. The cobblestones were swept of any stray leaves and sticks. As Izzy entered the palace itself, she saw swept and mopped floors and countertops where there should have been heavy dust and grime. The paintings that hung from the walls were tended with loving care. The kitchen was almost sparkly with its cleanliness. Candles were newly replaced, and lit.
Yet there wasn’t a soul in sight. Izzy tightened her grip on the sword, the moonlight reflected on its naked steel.
There were bound to be secret staircases and passageways, but she cleared the ground floor as best she could, then the east wing, then started on the west…she pushed a door open and knew she wasn’t alone.
The silver moonlight streamed through the open windows, a slight breeze trying to lift the lazy, heavy curtains. Izzy noted the giant bed (empty, made), the porcelain plate on the night stand (a few breadcrumbs and a steak bone on it), and the sealed envelope on the desk. With the seal of the Lord of the Rose.
She tucked the letter in her pocket, then stepped outside onto the balcony. The Beast was standing by the stone railing, looking out across the land. It was a cross between a man and a boar with a bear’s build and fur. His ear twitched, but otherwise he didn’t move.
Izzy lowered her sword. “You know I’m here. Why are you ignoring me? I expected you to fight.”
The Beast turned its head slightly, still not looking at her. “I am a monster. You don’t know what I’ve done, or who I’ve attacked.”
“If you were an evil monster, you would’ve already attacked.”
He snarled at her.
Izzy straightened, and held up letter in her hand. She turned the rose seal to the Beast. “Do I have you to thank for all my adventures these past five years? Are you the Lord of the Rose, and that’s why this is my final assignment?”
The Beast gaped at her, then snatched the letter. “You’re failing your final assignment.”
Izzy ignored that. “You pay me to kill monsters,” she said. “You don’t seem to be a monster. What’s your name?”
“You were enchanted, weren’t you? Witches like turning handsome men into beasts to teach them a lesson. Let me guess: true love will break the spell?”
She straightened to her full height of five and a half feet. “You’ve hired me to get rid of The Beast. And I will.”
She quickly lost track of the days spent with Gryphon
It was the evening of the full moon when Khalon came to the palace.
Izzy met him in the hall of the second floor. He glared at the doors and paintings, as if they’d personally offended him. His sword was drawn. She felt that she hated him. “What are you doing here?”
“I was worried about you. You’ve been gone over a month with not a word. They said you were fighting a fearsome beast…the worst monster you’ve ever faced.”
Izzy laughed. “I think the villagers have been listening to too many tales. Gryphon is no monster.”
Khalon did not move. “Gryphon? Have you been fraternizing with the enemy? Are you a traitor?”
Izzy shifted her feet into a fighting stance. “Leave, Khalon. Now!”
He pushed her back with a shove, almost knocking her over. She stepped forward. They were inches apart, glaring at each other.
Khalon swung with his sword. Izzy ducked and drew her own as he swung again. She parried, slashed and was blocked. Furniture was toppled over and sliced in two. Wallpaper was shredded, and a window was shattered.
She was an experienced fighter, and rebuked with her sword, knocking his weapon out of his hands. It flew through the air and hit the floor with a loud clang.
Khalon reached into his belt and pulled out a long, evil-looking knife. He stabbed.
Izzy jumped back, and saw an opening. She dove forward and drove her sword into Khalon’s ribs to the hilt. Blood dribbled down his chin. She pulled at the sword, jiggled it a little, then sighed when she found it too much effort to pull free. She let go.
Khalon dropped to the floor, blood pooling on the carpet.
Gryphon ran into the room a minute later, gripping his own sword. He stopped when he saw Izzy’s blade in Khalon’s chest.
Then she winced. What an odd pain in her stomach…
She looked down and saw blood seeping through her clothes. The slash he made with his knife, she realized as the room began to tilt. Just before I killed him…
“You’re bleeding.” Gryphon dropped the sword and started shredding his jacket for bandages.
Izzy chuckled without mirth, and leaned against the wall. “I’m dead. You need to go before I change.”
“What change?” Gryphon demanded.
She ran a hand over the scars on her face. “You know how I got these?”
“Right shoulder, too.”
Frowning, Gryphon pulled back her shirt. The werewolf bite was burning as the full moon rose.
When Gryphon looked back at Izzy’s face, her jaw was slacked and her eyes were black.
“Run!” she snarled.
Gryphon obeyed, sprinting down the hall. He left his sword behind.
Izzy watched him go, feeling better the farther away from her he got. The wolf might not recognize him as a friend.
She laughed as her bones shifted and fur erupted across her body. Her laughter soon turned to howls.
Gryphon came back, when the screams and howls stopped.
The eastern sky was turning gray as he came into the palace from the gardens. He felt his skin tingle beneath his fur, but that was probably just the cold.
The eastern wing, where the fight had started, was a mess. Wallpaper had been shredded by claws and swords. Not a single piece of furniture was intact. Blood was sprinkled across the floor, until he came to the library. Then it was the carpet and wallpaper.
The Hunter was in pieces. Gryphon had to sidestep a few vital organs and his head in order to get to the wolf. She would be dead in few minutes.
He bit his tongue, trying to keep the tears inside. Izzy lifted her head slightly when she heard him, a weak growl in the back of her throat. There was no recognition, no familiarity in her eyes.
A sliver of the sun came over the horizon, and finally recognition sparked in Izzy’s eyes. She lowered her head on her paws.
Gryphon came closer, and when she didn’t bite, sat next to her. She pressed herself against his knee. Her breathing was ragged, growing weaker every second. There was a knife in her side, piercing her lung.
He lifted her just enough that her head was on his lap. She whined in pain, but didn’t resist. He stroked her head, whispering soft nothings. Izzy curled up tighter, closer to him.
The higher the sun rose, the less fur covered her body, and the her bones shifted back into place, making it hard to breathe.
And Gryphon saw his own fur recede. Felt his tusks retract.
He stayed with her until the sun was completely overhead, shining brightly, removing shadows from the world. The sun continued to climb until she stopped breathing. Until they were both human again.
Christina “DZA” Marie is a college student in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. She decided that a double major, day job, internship, and social life weren’t enough to keep her occupied, so she started blogging and writing. Her blog Dragons, Zombies and Aliens reviews TV shows, books, and movies in the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres. She’s written two other short stories: “The Last Battle” for Luna Station Quarterly (May 2016) and “The Last Meal” for Quantum Fairy Tales. She has a major crush on Benedict Cumberbatch and dreams of moving to Alaska with a pack of huskies and several boxes of hot chocolate. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.